Niall Encardi heard the news of the coup at the beginning of the final lecture in MERAH, before graduating as a doctor from the Merkator Medical Academy. His classmates spread the rumors and speculations in harsh, rapid whispers, punctuated by curses, as they waited for the team of professors to step up to the lectern in the center of the lecture amphitheater.
The timing of the news struck Niall as symbolic and ironic. The new regime called itself the Restoration Alliance, and had been threatening the entrenched government of the Central Allied Worlds for nearly three years now with strong backing from the Set'ri, who insisted on "purifying" the Human genome. Their dogma included sterilizing all "defective" genetic variations, and making slaves of any humanoid race that didn't match their narrow, exclusive criteria. MERAH stood for Medial Ethics Relating to Augmented Humanoids--meaning Wrinkleship pilots, Khybors, and all the lesser mutations and variations that had come about by accident or as byproducts of the tinkering of generations of scientists. The ones who couldn't reproduce were safe, and perhaps to be envied. The Set'ri didn't care about them. The ones who could pass their augmented genetics on to their children--especially Khybors--or whose tangled genetic side trips could show up in future generations of their family line even if they themselves didn't or couldn't reproduce--such as Wrinkleship pilots--were their targets.
Niall didn't have time to consider all the questions that came with the news of the coups. What changes the Restoration Alliance would bring about. How soon they would occur. Whether those changes would reach past the second expansion ring of colonization before the forces of the CAW took back the government. Even the question of how those changes would affect him and his practice as a Level One medical practitioner if they ever reached him and his homeworld, Niall couldn't spare the time to consider. If he was totally honest--and he didn't have time for even that, with final exams waiting to pound his brain into jelly for the next eight straight days--he couldn't make himself care, either.
Why should he? Sorendaal lay in EG19--the nineteenth expansion ring of colonization moving out from Vidan, the home planet. That meant quite a few expansion rings of colonies and star sectors lay between his world and Vidan, and the new, likely repressive regime. That meant years of battles and suppression campaigns before the military even thought about coming to Sorendaal and flexing their muscles to beat the colonists into subservience. If they oppressed or alienated Wrinkleship pilots, it would take even longer. By that time, if recent history followed its usual pattern, the Restoration Alliance, like the dozen-plus regimes before it, would have been overthrown by the outraged citizens who didn't like change or their friends and neighbors vanishing in the middle of the night. More important, people would resist because they didn't like convenience goods being denied them because Wrinkleship pilots were thrown into holding cells and laboratories and weren't out in the spaceways, transporting cargo faster than the solar winds.
When the first MERAH lecturer stepped up to the lectern and turned on the amplification crystal that would carry his voice to each level in the amphitheater containing roughly two thousand medical students, Niall was ready to get down to business. He pushed the coup and the new government and politics out of his mind. Becoming certified as a doctor and returning to Sorendaal with the latest in knowledge and technology was more important than politics.
Niall slept for an entire day straight after finishing his last set of exams. The fact that he was allowed to do that was his first proof that he had indeed passed all requirements and was considered ready to graduate--graduates were exempt from mandatory duty shifts on the medical barges that orbited Merkator. He wandered down to the dining hall in his residence building and identified other graduates by their just-rolled-out-of-bed hair and their relaxed postures. They sat at tables on the far side of the room from the doors, and watched the students who still faced duty shifts gobble their meals and fly out of the hall, or else eat with one hand while making notes on their datapads with the other, with a reading screen or an antique medical manual propped up on the table in front of them. Niall remembered seeing soon-to-be graduates during his first year at Merkator and envying them, their freedom from the tyranny of the chrono. He laughed at himself now as he filled his tray with food. Someone should have told him that the graduates weren't being leisurely--they were exhausted after eight years of constant study and tending patients and working their way up from retrieving medical supplies to assisting med techs to assisting real doctors to doing doctoring with a senior professor looking over their shoulders until they crossed the finish line of graduation.
He sat with his friends and all of them marveled at their ability to enjoy a leisurely meal, to sit and talk and share their plans for after graduation. Who was going back to their home worlds to work off education debts. Who was joining the military. Who was going into further research. Niall suspected he learned more about quite a few of his classmates during that breakfast than he had during four or five years of working and studying together. There was a lesson to be learned in that observation, but he wasn't quite recovered enough from testing to think very long about it. He returned to his room to take another nap, with some vague plans to get together with friends and have a picnic dinner in one of the gardens that most students never got to see. Rumor said the gardens were put there for the enjoyment of the teaching staff, for government officials who came to visit the medical education colony, and to impress rich families who considered sending their children to Merkator to study.
A package waited for him at the message desk inside the main door of the residence building. It had a jumble of multiple layers of stamps and code strips all over the box that was barely large enough to hold a pair of boots. Niall couldn't decipher where it had come from, or even how all the different shipping points and transport ships that had taken the package had been able to eventually get it to him. At some point, all the labels and code strips should have covered up his name. Oddly enough, the address didn't list his residence building, just that he was a student from Sorendaal studying on Merkator. He studied the box as he rode the lift up to his residence floor, turning it over and over in his hands, listening to the soft rattle of whatever it contained, trying to find the oldest and the most recent codes, to determine how long it had been in transit.
"Oh, so you're the lucky one," Amber greeted him as he stepped out of the lift. "Some of us saw it waiting in the holding room and wondered. What is it?"
Niall shrugged and tipped his head in the direction of his room, silently inviting her to come see. When she fell into step with him, he handed it to her to look at. She found a date stamp from four years before, and they picked up three more friends who were interested in the package by the time they reached Niall's quarters. He sat at his study desk and the other four took up seats on his bed and on the sill of the narrow window looking down on the waves that battered the high cliffs where the school perched. Niall peeled as many of the labels and coding strips off as he could while keeping them intact. He knew some of his fellow students would demand proof that the package had actually taken so long and gone through so many transit points and sat in such a wide variety of cargo holds. The oldest one that was still legible indicated the package had been traveling six years.
"End the suspense already," Garen said, reaching as if he would take the box from Niall's hands.
The other four laughed, mostly because Garen was usually the one who tormented the others by making them wait for news or to find out the latest rumors or which professor was taking interns and apprentices.
"All right." Niall pulled out the multi-tool his professor of field service had given all the graduates. In a moment, he had slit the outer sealed skin. The box was held shut with straps that he cut in a moment.
Inside were small translucent green cubes.
"Old-style video cubes," Garen said, picking one out of the box. He turned it over between his hands. "I think I know where you can find a player."
By the time Niall, Amber and Garen tracked down a machine that would play the cubes, they had lost the other two friends, who professed sleep interested them more than video cubes. The trio ended up in one of the machinery archives. They were just as amazed as the archives keeper that there were more than a dozen of the obsolete display and playback units in storage. One cube was marked, "play this first", so they did.
"Hello, son." Gaellon Encardi smiled from the screen, looking even more battered and worn and browned from thin ship shielding than he had the last time Niall saw him--when he was twelve Standard years old. His Exploration Corps uniform looked new enough for all his badges and insignias and honor citations to be crisp and clean and bright. That meant he was heading out for another long-range mission. The elder Encardi specialized in finding habitable planets and clearing them for colonization. If there were any conditions that would threaten the security and success of a colony, especially the health and reproductive ability of the colonists, he could identify it faster and with more accuracy than most others. It made him a valuable asset to the CAW's colonization efforts. If the truth were ever admitted within the Niallon household, it gave him an excuse to stay away from Sorendaal and his wife's family, the dynastic leaders of the colony.
"Never said you had a hero in your family tree," Amber murmured.
"Not that any of us ever ask," Garen said, with his hand on the pause bar. "Doctors poke into everybody's lives but other doctors. Where do you think we learn to keep our silence, but here?" He tipped his head at the frozen image of the white-haired, leather-skinned man Niall remembered more from communication videos than from personal contact.
"We don't have much time down here," Niall said for answer. He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest, and tried not to hold his breath as the image moved and spoke again.
"I'm so far out, I figure it'll take years to get this to you. You probably won't get the time to watch any of these vids until graduation. I didn't go the whole program on Merkator, but I have enough friends in the Corps who can vouch for the total concentration and focus they demand of you. Consider it an early graduation present." Gaellon shrugged. "I found these in a bazaar at a smaller spaceport. Thought you might enjoy them. Maybe remember me a little better. We had a lot of fun when you were a little critter. I remember how you wanted me to build a ship for you, to sail the Sa'ooka River, and pretend to be Captain Staarc of the pirate ship Vendetta. I remember some nights you'd insist on watching three or four episodes in a row, and falling asleep leaning against me."
Niall caught his breath, realizing what those cubes had to be. He blinked hard, tearing up and not wanting his friends to see. Especially when he couldn't quite understand why he reacted this way.
"Do me a favor, son. Don't join any service. Not military or any other government branch. Stay out of space, stay off ships. Get yourself back to Sorendaal and plant your roots in the planet where you were born. I don't much get along with your grandfather or uncle, but I understand their fierce loyalty to their world. It's in your blood. I knew since you were still just crawling, your destiny was to be a healer for people you knew, on a world where there would be more than enough challenges for a lifetime. Sorendaal tries to kill its own people, but like your uncle always says, that's half the fun, and that's half the reason why you all love the place. The other half is you're all just plain crazy in the blood." He snorted, his grin widening for a few seconds. "The other favor, if I can ask any favors of you, is never be any more responsible for Sorendaal than as its healer. Don't be a politician. Don't be a leader of any kind. It'll drive you half-mad and tear at your soul, trying to think for everyone, trying to protect them. It's kind of ironic, me talking about being a father when I wasn't there enough to count as one, but that's what leadership is--you're a parent forever and always, and no matter what you do, no matter how they try, your children never grow up. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. You probably don't believe me, because I haven't been there to see the man you grew up to be, but I am proud of you, son. I'll always be proud, just because I'm your father. Go out there and be the best doctor in the entire narding universe."
Silence spread through the little viewing cubicle after the screen blanked, until Amber reached out and tapped the bar to pop the cube out of the receptacle.
"Did he say what I think he said?" She picked up another of the cubes and tossed it up in the air a few times. "Vid episodes of the adventures of the Vendetta?"
"Genuine antiques," Garen said. He clapped Niall on the shoulder. "Probably shouldn't have listened in on that message from your father. He has good taste in graduation presents. The rest of us won't get ours for a year or two, once our kin get the news we graduated. He timed it good, getting it to you."
"Timed it?" Amber snorted. "Near as I can tell, that package has been in transit since before Niall got here as a first-year."
"At least twelve years," Niall said. "My father's last mission killed him. This box wasn't among his possessions, either on the ship or at Corps Headquarters. He sent it before he headed out for the last time. Before I even started applying to study here." He shook his head and reached to pick up the closest cube. "So, do we try to find the first episode, or the one closest to the first, or should we just take our luck as it comes?"
"If we could find the very first, that'd be nova," she said, picking up the box. She gestured as if she would turn it over on the counter next to the viewer, waiting for their input and Niall's permission.
He didn't have to think long. If he was going to watch the adventures of Captain Staarc, captain of the old-style water-borne pirate ship Vendetta, he wanted to watch from the beginning of the story. Staarc had been a man of education and culture, falsely accused, sentenced to hard labor on board a sailing vessel in the ancient history of Vidan--back when all Humans had been limited to one world and the stars were mere points of light in the night sky instead of markers for other solar systems. His endurance of injustice, his noble character that endured and guided his actions despite abuse, and what he had done when luck handed him an opportunity to escape, had made him a hero to young boys and girls across the Central Allied Worlds for centuries, first as novels, then illustrated novels, then as video drama episodes. Niall looked forward to reliving some of the happiest days of his childhood. Maybe he would even be able to feel like his father was there, watching with him once again.
Or at least until it was time to walk through graduation ceremonies in five more days, and then survive whatever extravaganza of indulgence Merkator would produce to celebrate this term's graduates. Then, when he woke up an official graduate with a somber future ahead of him, he would start thinking about serious things.
Halfway through the third episode, he remembered the rumors about the coup and the Restoration Alliance. He wondered if his friends had heard anything further, then pushed that consideration aside for later. After seven full episodes and the fuss of preparing for the ceremony, he forgot all about the Restoration Alliance and the newest incarnation of the government of the Central Allied Worlds.
Unfortunately for Niall and other natives of far-flung colonies studying on Merkator, the new government didn't forget about them.
Genocidal revolutionaries had a loathing for red tape nearly equal to that of idealists and medical personnel. Before the coup was officially proclaimed a success, the Restoration Alliance began wading through the student records of the vast, multi-galaxy-spanning educational system of the Central Allied Worlds. Their purpose and dedication--and paranoia about what politics-hating intellectuals and scientists could do against them--cut through bureaucratic baffles that had slowed generations before them.
Niall intended to sleep in the day after the graduation celebration that filled his entire residence tower. He woke up with an aching head made worse by the pounding on his door. It sounded like someone was trying to shatter it instead of acting civilized and ringing the admittance chime. He pulled his head out from under his covers and reached for the communication panel on the side of his study alcove.
"What do you want? This had better be an emergency." He tried to think if he had agreed to cover someone's duty shift on one of the hospital barges that orbited the planet like an asteroid belt. After all, until he met up with the ship that would carry him on the first leg of his long journey home to Sorendaal, he had to earn his keep--and on Merkator, that meant using the medical skills he had been taught here.
No, he decided as he waited for whoever had stopped banging to respond to his response, it was unconscious habit to program such things into his datapad. It would have warned him before he went to bed and awakened him in plenty of time to wash and eat and dress. No one was here to drag him off to work.
"Niall Encardi. You are hereby summoned to report to the deportation sector in four hours. Time stamp has been initiated," the mechanical voice shrilled through the speaker.
One more loud thud punctuated the words, and Niall was astonished to see his door slide open far enough for someone to slip a data rod through and toss it onto the nearest surface, which happened to be his unnaturally empty study desk. Five red lights glowed down the surface the length of his hand. The first one flashed, along with a yellow light directly underneath it.
The rod was a timer, marking off the hours and quarters remaining to him until he had to show up at the appointed place, insert the rod in the receptor slot, and verify he had complied. Military and government personnel--most notably security forces and legal personnel--used such things.
"What's going on?" he demanded, staring at the gap in his door that never should have opened without his permission.
It took him less than an hour--leaving him just about three hours to comply--to learn what had happened. The Restoration Alliance, enforcing its new authority as the legal government of the CAW, had declared all colonies and star sectors and space stations that had not formally allied with it to be in rebellion. It didn't matter that many of them didn't even know a coup had taken place or hadn't received the demand for cooperation and a pledge of loyalty. Any personnel from the now-declared-rebel planets who had not signed an oath of loyalty, renouncing their citizenship to those rebel planets, were considered enemy combatants and were to be deported from all vulnerable positions and sensitive facilities. The medical training world of Merkator was considered a sensitive facility.
Niall would have laughed at the notion that medical personnel could be considered dangerous. No one was accepted into the eight-year study program on Merkator until they had passed rigorous mental and emotional screening, proving that they put health, sanitation, and the preservation of all life ahead of all considerations--and that included the shifting political alliances among the Central Allied Worlds.
"Maybe that's why they focused on us, first," his best friend, Aybal Cayn remarked. Everyone on Niall and Aybal's residence floor--all two hundred twenty--had gathered in the social block to pool their knowledge and assess their options. "If they can't control us, we're the enemy. They're afraid we'll treat enemy soldiers just the same as we will their own people, if we're caught in a battle situation. And that's treason, as far as they're concerned."
"Yeah, but what's their feeling if the situation is reversed and they're the enemy and we still treat them equally with the defenders?" Merissa Grae said.
"Unfortunately..." Petro Halm shook his head. "They'd see us as weak and foolish and worthy of extermination. Mercy isn't in their vocabulary. They're a tool of the Set'ri, and you know how they feel about our mission to preserve all life, even the defective and mutated."
"So what do we do?" Merissa said. She turned to Niall, just as most of those sitting around them did.
He hated that, but it happened all the time. As grandson of the colonial governor on Sorendaal, Niall had been raised in Government House, seeing government in action and examples of responsibility and leadership since infancy. He had learned from watching his elders how to assess situations and organize people into efficient units, how to cut through emotions to logic, and make decisions that served the greater numbers. That training had stayed with him when he came to Merkator for his medical studies, so that he ended up in a leadership position without even trying. Despite his father's late advice, Niall knew he couldn't help being a leader and taking the welfare of others on his shoulders. How could he ignore one of the first laws of Fi'in and ignore others in need when he had the skills to help them?
"We're being deported," he said now with a shrug. "Probably we're being shunned or ostracized along with our colonies. That's my best guess, anyway. We're not being sent to prisons and we're not being put on trial. They probably think the idea of being cut off from the center of civilization will be enough to frighten our colonies into complying. And if they're smart, they'll know better than to treat us like criminals and pack us in ships under unlivable conditions. They want cooperation, not revolution." He sighed and lifted the timer data stick that all of them carried. "And we have less than three hours to pack our gear and get to the deportation level. Does anybody know where that is?"
"What are the chances they shut down all the transport tubes and slide-walks and lift-stairs, so it'll take us two hours to get anywhere?" someone said from the back of the group.
Someone else laughed, but it was a weak, almost desperate sound. Niall didn't feel any encouragement from that tiny flicker of humor. How did this new regime, which had suddenly classed him as an enemy and unwanted, just because of the planet where he had been born, expect him to comply when they didn't give him complete information?
At the one hour mark, the data stick flashed and the same shrill mechanical voice spewed the coordinates of the deportation center. All the lights on the stick turned red and the top one flashed at an almost frantic pace, marking the elapsed time. Two lights had flashed and gone dark by the time Niall had all his gear gathered up--abandoning most of his worn out clothes, and trinkets and dress clothes he doubted he would need to use for the next few moons--and he left his quarters for the last time. His three duffels bulged with book chips and medical equipment and supplies that he refused to leave behind. He hadn't been able to leave behind the Vendetta video cubes, even though the chances of finding a viewer that would play them were even smaller, the further he got from the Galactic Core. Odd, how little room eight years of life could take up, and how many mementos and their attached memories he could leave behind. The gut instinct that had served him in the harsh jungles of Sorendaal told him he might need that equipment in the days to come. Besides, most of it had sentimental value, having been given to him as gifts from instructors, or as awards for excelling in his studies.
He reached the deportation sector with two red lights yet to start flashing. Niall didn't like the sensation of relief that made him lightheaded. It indicated a level of fear that a newly graduated and certified doctor couldn't indulge, even for his own sake. Medicine required a cool head and attention to details and logic. Emotions could not be permitted to rule. Ever.
"Slick new uniforms," Petro said, coming to meet Niall when he paused in the doorway of the level that had once contained three square kilometers of gardens and recreation areas. As far as Niall could see, all the service equipment and anything movable had been cleared away. The fountains were still pools, the climate controls had been turned off so no humidified breezes blew, and the carpet of resilient olive and emerald and scarlet moss had been scraped up from the flooring, leaving a thin layer of dry, sterile soil over a scarred, mottled gray plastic surface.
Niall tore his gaze away from the devastation and the crowds of people filling the once-pristine, rejuvenating location, and turned to look at the soldiers. The black and purple uniforms were literally everywhere, equal in number to the medical students and personnel streaming into the level, if not outnumbering them.
"How long do you think it takes to manufacture so many uniforms?" Petro continued, when Niall had time to digest the spectacle.
The previous government's uniforms were silver and navy. They gave dignity to the wearers. These uniforms made Niall think of arrogance and cruelty. This particular shade of purple was too close to the color of large quantities of dried blood, and that was not a favorite color for any doctor.
"How long did it take to design them?" Niall murmured, trying not to move his mouth or let emotions show on his face. He sensed the less attention he drew, the safer he would be. And as yet, not one of those uniforms had turned toward him. Not one purple helmet with the anonymous black faceplate had faced in his direction, indicating the man inside watched him.
"Kind of makes you think they've been planning this for a long time," Petro said, nodding. "Years, maybe. Sending out feelers. Figuring out who they could rely on when they took power. And who would cause trouble."
"Which means they're not trying to figure out what to do with us." He fought an involuntary chill. "They've already decided. Is that a good thing, or bad?"
"The less organized your enemy is, my uncle always used to say, the better for you."